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Mpls. Company Starts Sophia, A New Educational Website

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Have you met Sophia yet? It’s not a woman, but a website created by a Minneapolis start-up.

“It’s a very social tool. It’s easy to use,” said Sophia founder and CEO Don Smithmier. “It’s very familiar to people who use the Internet everyday, but it’s focused 100 percent on academics, and it’s focused on teaching and learning.”

It’s all about wisdom — getting it and giving it. In fact, the name Sophia means wisdom in Greek.

The website feels like a mix of Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube, except that it’s limited to academic subjects only.

If your child’s English homework is on similes, you can go to Sophia.org, type in simile and find a few different tutorials — called learning packets — on the subject. Pretty soon you’ll learn that, “A simile is a figure of speech that compares two different things using like or as.”

Another video learning packet shows examples of similes in music. One of the examples is Katy Perry singing, “You change your mind like a girl changes clothes.”

Math, English, science are just a few of the subjects covered on Sophia. If a learning packet is popular, it gets five stars. If it’s recommended by teachers, it has a green check symbol next to it.

“It’s no longer the few create and the many consumer, there’s a lot of creators now,” said Smithmier.

He got the idea for Sophia a couple years ago.

“You can go to YouTube and find a video on almost anything, factoring polynomials or cellular mitosis,” said Smithmier. “But the fact is, nobody really went out of their way to organize it and make it a positive for education.”

Smithmier showed us one of his favorite learning packets. It features a bungee-jumping Barbie.

“This is not how I learned about linear regression in my stats class,” said Smithmier.

Sophia started as an invite-only project last summer. Now it’s open to everyone all over the world.

“So the simple idea is teach what you know and learn what you don’t,” said Smithmier.

Fred Hennen uses Sophia in his eighth grade math class at Benilde-St. Margaret’s.

“Eighth graders, OK, today, we’re going to have a Sophia work day,” he told the class. “So let’s go ahead and start working on our chapter seven packet.”

Hennen, who helped with the development and testing of Sophia, requires his students to create learning packets based on what they recently covered in class.

“They’re asked to teach somebody else how to do something,” said Hennen. “And when you start teaching something, that’s when you really truly know what you’re talking about.”

Keara Clacko made a learning packet on linear equations. It sounds hard.

“Not really,” she said. “All I had to do was make a video on iMovie, then I imported it into Sophia, so it was actually quite easy.”

Sophia doesn’t have any advertising on the site. Starting next fall, the Sophia team hopes to sell licensed versions of Sophia to schools. Those versions would give schools administrative controls and additional levels of privacy.

Smithmier first started working on Sophia in September of 2009. When his Minnesota software developers are off work, there’s a team of 10 developers continuing the project in Minsk, Belarus. They’ve come a long way in a year and a half.

“In Internet time, that’s about what you would expect. That’s about what you would expect,” said Smithmier. “I’d like us to be going faster.”

Paula Engelking, Producer
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